AFC East: Matt Ryan

Rapid Reaction: New York Jets

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
11:52
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ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the New York Jets' 30-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Jets (3-2), rebounding from an awul performance last week, moved into a second-place tie with the Miami Dolphins -- only one game behind the New England Patriots in the AFC East. They scored on their first three drives for the first time since 2008 and finished it off in dramatic fashion, as rookie quarterback Geno Smith led a game-winning, field-goal drive in the final two minutes. Nick Folk kicked the winner from 43 yards as time expired. This was a huge upset, one of Rex Ryan's biggest wins in a long time. They blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, but rallied behind their rookie.

Stock Watch: Smith has arrived. After 11 turnovers in four games, Smith was flawless (no turnovers) and showed his cool in the final 1:54, completing four passes to set up Folk. This was the performance the Jets had been awaiting, absolute poise in a hostile environment. Smith completed 16 of 20 for 199 yards, throwing three touchdowns. This in no way resembled the rattled kid who stunk it up last week. Ladies and gentlemen, the Jets found their quarterback.

Night of the Tight End: The Falcons' Tony Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer, was virtually unstoppable -- 10 catches for 97 yards. Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow are not going to Canton, but they came up huge for the Jets. Cumberland and Winslow each scored a touchdown, compensating for a banged-up receiving corps. Cumberland (three catches for 79 yards) killed the Falcons with deep seams in the first half. Winslow, who almost did not play because of chronic knee pain, was targeted only once, but it was a one-yard touchdown reception on a play-action bootleg. Winslow did a toe-tap to keep both feet in the end zone, a wily veteran delivering a clutch play in the fourth quarter.

America, meet Mo: Folks in New York know all about defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson; now the entire country does, too. Wilkerson, exploiting a suspect offensive line, staged a dominating performance. The Falcons, with a new starter at left tackle, could not block Wilkerson, who created the Jets' first takeaway since Week 1 -- a strip sack in the third quarter that set up a field goal. He felt he deserved Pro Bowl recognition last season. He may have earned a trip to Hawaii on the Monday night stage, spearheading a defensive effort that included a goal-line stand at the end of the first half.

Defensive wrinkle: Ryan changed his approach, using more two-high safety looks than usual. That's not a staple of the Ryan playbook, but he took the conservative approach on the back end with the hope of eliminating big plays. It worked, as the Jets held wide receiver Julio Jones to eight catches for 99 yards, but they got gashed underneath by Matt Ryan who completed 36 of 45 passes with 319 yards.

What's ahead: The Jets return home to face the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4), who are coming off a bye week.
The New York Jets (2-2) return to the prime-time stage for the second time in 25 days, facing the underachieving Atlanta Falcons (1-3) on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." This is a tough spot for the Jets.

They've lost four straight on the road, dating to last season, with a staggering minus-14 turnover margin. Under QB Matt Ryan, the Falcons are 34-6 at the Georgia Dome.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJets coach Rex Ryan hasn't been shy about tossing his challenge flag this season.
Ah, but life isn't peachy in the peach state. The Falcons are trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2007, before Ryan and coach Mike Smith arrived. They've already lost as many games as they did last season, and they realize a loss to the Jets could cripple their Super Bowl dreams.

In other words, the Falcons are desperate, and desperate teams with talent are dangerous. They're going into their bye week, and no team wants to sit on a three-game losing streak for two weeks.

What to watch for:

1. House money: There's no pressure on the Jets; it's all on the Falcons, who know there's only a five percent chance of a 1-4 team making the playoffs. No one is giving Rex Ryan's team much of a chance, but he's at his best as the heavy underdog. He spent the week talking up the Falcons' offense and Ryan, saying he's a notch below Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but it's hard to believe he actually believes that.

2. QBs on the hot seat: Geno Smith needs to steady himself -- and the team -- after an awful performance in Tennessee. Unfortunately for him, he's not at MetLife Stadium. In two road losses, he has only one touchdown pass and seven turnovers, unraveling in both cases after his first turnover. If the Falcons get to him early, it could be a long night for the Jets. Smith has to be smart and protect the ball, a huge emphasis in practice. His turnover count, already at 11, is growing faster than the national debt.

Believe it or not, Ryan is feeling some heat from a frustrated fan base in Atlanta. His passer rating is an impressive 97.7, but they're averaging only 23.5 points per game, largely because of persistent problems in the red zone. In two of their three losses, Ryan had the ball inside the opponents' 7-yard line at the end of the game, with a chance to pull out a win. The results: An interception and loss of possession on downs. Ryan, criticized for not being able to win the big one, apparently can't score the big one, either.

3. A 2012 feel at receiver: Without Santonio Holmes (hamstring), the Jets will start Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill, who suffered a concussion only eight days ago. You can win with that tandem, but there are questions beyond them. Clyde Gates (knee) is questionable, and neither David Nelson (signed last Tuesday) and Michael Campbell (promoted from the practice squad) has played a down this season. And, let's not forget, TE Kellen Winslow (knee) is questionable. You have to think Winslow will tough it out on his bad knee, but he missed a lot of practice time, as did Hill. That impacts continuity, especially with a rookie quarterback who needs reps.

4. Marty under the microscope: This game will tell us a lot about offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. His quarterback is struggling with turnovers and his receivers are nicked up, so the logical plan of attack is to feed Bilal Powell, who began Week 5 as the AFC co-leader in rushing. Then again, Mornhinweg isn't a Ground & Pound kind of guy and he probably will try to exploit the Falcons' suspect pass defense. They're allowing 301 yards per game, including four plays of 40+ yards. The possible return of CB Asante Samuel (thigh) will help the Falcons, but they're vulnerable in the slot. Nickel back Robert McClain has allowed a 149 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. Bottom line: Don't expect Mornhinweg to radically change his approach.

5. Secondary revenge: The Jets' secondary should be in an ornery mood after getting carved up last week by Jake Locker and Ryan Fitzpatrick. They allowed four touchdown passes and a 129.8 passer rating, and now here comes WR Julio Jones, who leads the league in receiving yards and ranks second in yards-after-the-catch. Ryan has completed 73 percent of his throws to Jones, who is adept at using his 6-foot-3 frame to overpower corners. If the Jets can neutralize Jones, they win the game. The question is, how? He routinely beats double coverage.

The Jets will have to provide over-the-top help with a safety, but that would impact their ability to defend TE Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the field. Rex Ryan has to play the Falcons' tendencies, knowing which player to double in certain situations. You can bet he'll double Gonzalez in the red zone. He'll go to school on how his brother, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, defended the future Hall of Fame in Week 1.

Ryan represents defense's tallest task

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is among the league leaders when it comes to pass attempts. Heading into Week 4, Ryan is tied for 10th with 119 attempts, but is tied for sixth with 81 completions for a completion rate (68.1) that ranks fourth in the league.

It's evident the former Boston College Eagle likes to throw the football.

Ryan
Ryan
“He’s just smart. He’s a smart quarterback,” Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said Friday. “He knows when to get the ball out of his hand. He doesn’t take too many sacks. You can get some pressure on him, but you’ve got to make sure you’re quick in your movements.”

New England’s defense has allowed 188.3 passing yards per game this season, the sixth-lowest mark in the NFL, but has faced three second-tier quarterbacks. Ryan is by far the best signal caller it will have faced.

“They love throwing the ball. For me, I just fill up the gas tank because it’s going to be a night where you gotta have a lot of high-energy rushes,” Ninkovich said. “They’re going with an up-tempo offense, so the D-line has to do a good job of doing their assignment.”

Atlanta is also consistent with its play-action despite an injury to Steven Jackson, so New England needs to respect that as well.

“You’ve just got to do the best to stop the run. Set up some long situations where you know they wouldn’t really want to run the ball if they’re backed up, or in a longer yardage situation. Just have good coverage and a good rush, and it all works together,” Ninkovich said.

Said New England defensive lineman Tommy Kelly: “He’s a great quarterback and he runs the whole show. The whole offense is run through him, and with the game on the line he’s going to have the ball in his hand. We’ve got to try to get him off the spot and make some hurried decisions.”

Ryan has been sacked just five times this season, but the Patriots hope to increase that number on Sunday.

“Our glory comes from sacking the quarterback, so you if can’t get up for a chance to play a quarterback who throws the ball a lot, you’re pretty much in the wrong league,” Kelly said.
Tom Brady and Matt RyanGetty ImagesTom Brady and Matt Ryan have both come in for heaping praise ahead of Sunday's meeting.

ATLANTA -- There are $100 million reasons why Matt Ryan should be talked about among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. One thing the Atlanta Falcons quarterback doesn’t have that his Sunday-night counterpart possesses is a Super Bowl ring.

Ryan's showdown with New England Patriots star Tom Brady is sure to be a hot topic throughout Week 4. He already lost one such head-to-head matchup, when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints got the better of Ryan and the Falcons in the season opener (23-17).

So how will Ryan fare against the Pats? He’ll need help from all phases, something he didn’t receive in last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins.

ESPN.com Falcons team reporter Vaughn McClure and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break it down:

McClure: The Falcons were touted as a Super Bowl contender -- and possibly a favorite -- going into the season. But now, at 1-2, they find themselves in almost a must-win situation at home. How will the Patriots respond to the hostile environment they’ll enter Sunday night at the Georgia Dome?

Reiss: With 13 rookies on the 53-man roster -- including receivers Aaron Dobson (second round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), who are playing key roles -- there is an element of unknown for the Patriots when projecting how the team will respond. Some of these players simply haven’t experienced this environment and prime-time stage. It’s rare for a Patriots team to be relying on such a large number of rookies for significant contributions, and that is one of the interesting storylines from a New England perspective this week. Other storylines are if this might be tight end Rob Gronkowski's season debut, if receiver Danny Amendola will also return after missing two games with a groin injury and if the defense -- which has been solid against lesser competition (Jets, Bills, Buccaneers) -- can limit an explosive passing game that is easily the best the unit has seen to this point in the season. Give us a feel for how things are going for the Falcons on offense.

McClure: Not too well, at the moment. Head coach Mike Smith’s biggest complaint is how inefficient his team has been in the red zone. During the Week 3 loss to the Dolphins, the Falcons were 2-of-5 in red zone opportunities. For the season, they are 6-of-12 (50 percent) in terms of touchdowns in the red zone, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wants that number to be a bit higher. Having bruising running back Steven Jackson in the lineup would no doubt help in goal-line situations, but Jackson will miss Sunday’s game while nursing a hamstring injury. Receiver Roddy White is also a solid red zone target, but White is not 100 percent healthy coming off a high-ankle sprain. Ryan still has Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez as primary scoring weapons. How do you think the Patriots will keep up with the speedy receiver and ageless tight end?

Reiss: I think it starts with how they decide to match up against the Falcons’ “11 personnel” (one back, one tight end), because that looks like the most explosive package -- receivers Jones, White and Harry Douglas, with Gonzalez at tight end and either Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling at running back. Last Sunday against the Buccaneers’ “11 personnel,” the Patriots stayed in their base defense but played with three cornerbacks in the secondary -- their way of staying sturdy against the run but adding a coverage element to the secondary. I’d be surprised if we see that this week because the Falcons are much more potent in the passing game. So I could envision the Patriots turning to a coverage-heavy dime defense (six defensive backs), specifically with Jones and Gonzalez in mind, with the thought that a lighter box might be enough to limit the running game. For the Falcons, how are things shaping up on defense?

McClure: The defense has had its issues. Take the Miami game, for example. The Falcons held a 23-20 lead with just less than five minutes remaining in regulation. The defense needed to close, needed to put pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, needed to lock down the receivers. Instead, the Falcons played soft coverage after the Dolphins reached midfield and couldn’t disrupt Tannehill’s rhythm. In the end, Tannehill engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with his game-winning touchdown pass to Dion Sims. Not playing tight coverage and not wrapping up on tackles cost the Falcons in that game, and it could cost them the rest of the season if they don’t find a way to correct those problems immediately. They could use their defensive leader, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who was placed on injured reserve (foot) with a designation to return in Week 11. One other aspect noticeable in Miami was how the Dolphins tight ends won their one-on-one matchups against the Falcons on that final drive. That being said, will Atlanta have to contend with one of the best tight ends in the league, Gronkowski?

Reiss: We might not know the answer for sure until 90 minutes before kickoff, but things have been pointing in that direction. The one area the Patriots could use Gronkowski most, at least initially, is in the red zone. One season after ranking first in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage (which we acknowledge isn't a foolproof stat), the Patriots rank last (4-of-13). It’s going to be hard to win a game like this settling for field goals. Speaking of which, let’s not overlook special teams. The Patriots are getting good contributions in that third phase of the game, with a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski a highlight in Sunday’s victory over the Buccaneers. How about the Falcons?

McClure: Yet another area in which the Falcons could use much improvement. Against the Dolphins, returner Douglas fumbled a punt he admitted he shouldn’t have fielded in the first place. It translated into a Dolphins touchdown three plays later. The usually reliable Matt Bryant missed a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. And the Falcons had three penalties on special teams: two holds and an illegal block above the waist. Through three games, the Falcons are ranked 26th in punt return average and 30th in kickoff return average, although they’ve returned just one kickoff. Those special-teams issues are enough to cause special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong to blow a gasket. Speaking of that, is Brady still yelling at his receivers?

Reiss: Could you hear him down there in Atlanta? That was probably the most talked about storyline after New England's 13-10 win over the Jets on Sept. 12, whether Brady’s on-field frustrations were making things tougher on the young receivers than they needed to be. But it was mostly yelling at himself this past Sunday. He was upset with an end zone interception he said he shouldn’t have thrown. And he missed some open receivers, too. So while Brady’s stats were better last week, his performance wasn’t up to his own high standard, and it was actually more about him than the young pass-catchers, who turned in their best performance of the season. What is Ryan saying about this matchup?

McClure: Ryan said plenty about the Patriots when he addressed the media in the locker room Wednesday. He said he expects to see a lot of man-to-man coverage and complimented the Patriots for being very sound with their technique. He believes the front seven does a great job of creating pressure in both the run game and against the pass. Of course, Ryan gave much credit to Brady for being one of the top quarterbacks in the league for such a long time. In fact, Ryan joked that he hoped to be around as long as Brady. And Ryan singled out Vince Wilfork for not only being a disruptive force up front, but for being a 325-pound guy who plays a lot of snaps. So what’s the word from Bill Belichick?

Reiss: Belichick complimented Ryan, saying among other things that Ryan has very few bad plays. He shared his belief that consistency is the mark of any great player and Ryan is “pretty consistent -- every play, every game, every series.” And, according to Brady, Belichick said the following to players this week: “If you love football, then Sunday night at 8:30 in Atlanta will be the place to be.” Hard to imagine many would disagree about that. This is going to be fun.

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Ryan Tannehill and Julio JonesUSA TODAY SportsRyan Tannehill and the undefeated Dolphins will try to upset Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Miami Dolphins are basking in the light of a 2-0 start while the Atlanta Falcons are just trying to find some healthy bodies.

The two teams play each other Sunday in a game that has big implications in the AFC East and NFC South races.

ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine this matchup:

Yasinskas: James, like many, I thought the Dolphins would be an improved team. But it's looking like they might be even better than I thought. They've gone out and started their season with two big wins on the road. What's going right for the Dolphins and, more importantly, how good are they?

Walker: It's early, Pat, but Miami is already exceeding my expectations. I pegged the Dolphins to be an 8-8 team this year. That still could happen if the team loses focus, but Miami is on pace to do better. I credit two things: improved playmaking ability and the growth of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami committed more than $200 million in free-agent contracts to players like receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. All of those players came up big in last Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts. When you add in the fact Tannehill has improved in his second year, it's easy to see why the Dolphins are also taking the next step. Atlanta is a team many believe is a Super Bowl contender, but the group is banged up. Pat, how much will injuries impact the Falcons in this game?

Yasinskas: Atlanta has some major injury problems. The Falcons had to put defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing on injured reserve this week and there are reports that running back Steven Jackson will miss a few weeks. The loss of Biermann means the Falcons will have to play rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at linebacker and second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi at defensive end. If Jackson is out, the Falcons will have to go with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling as their running backs, and that's a sharp drop-off. That probably means the Falcons will pass even more than usual and rely on Roddy White and Julio Jones. Is Miami's secondary ready for that tandem?

Walker: I had a good conversation with Miami's top cornerback, Grimes, on Tuesday. He was complimentary of both White and Jones -- and Grimes would know. The former Falcon watched both receivers grow in Atlanta and practiced against them. It will be fun to see who has the advantage between Grimes and White/Jones, depending on the play. Grimes told me they all know each other so well that it's probably a push. The bigger concern for Miami's secondary is the other cornerback spot. Veteran starter Dimitri Patterson didn't play in Week 2 due to a groin injury. He's working his way back and could play Sunday. Rookie corners Will Davis and Jamar Taylor also returned to practice this week, which could provide depth. Similar to the game against Indianapolis, Miami must do a lot of things schematically to cover up its issues opposite Grimes. That includes using the safeties over the top and getting a good pass rush. Speaking of pass rush, the Dolphins have nine sacks in the first two games. Can they exploit the Falcons in this area?

Yasinskas: Miami's pass rush has to be a major concern for the Falcons. Atlanta revamped its offensive line in the offseason and it's taking some time to come together. The right side of the line is of particular concern with guard Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes as the starters. Reynolds is average at best and Holmes, a second-year pro, was thrown into the starting lineup when Mike Johnson went down with an injury in the preseason. Holmes is very much a work in progress, so the Falcons will have to try to give him some help by getting their tight ends and running backs involved as pass-blockers. Still, Atlanta should be able to move the ball through the air because it has Matt Ryan, Jones, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Has Tannehill developed enough to win a shootout?

Walker: That's an interesting question, Pat. I'm not sure anyone -- even Miami's coaching staff -- has the answer. I did notice the Dolphins' game plan in Week 1 against Cleveland was fairly conservative compared to Week 2 against Indianapolis. Those are two different teams, and perhaps the Dolphins realized they needed to be more aggressive throwing and take more vertical shots deep to match Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. This is a similar type of challenge, because Atlanta's offense is built around scoring points in the passing game. Tannehill is getting better at taking over parts of a game in Year 2. His play in the second half the past two weeks has been terrific. The Dolphins are outscoring opponents 24-6 in the third and fourth quarters, in part because Tannehill is moving the chains, putting points on the board and keeping Miami's defense fresh. I don't expect this game to be all on Tannehill's shoulders. The defense remains the strength of the Dolphins. Keeping Atlanta's scoring around 23 points or fewer, as opposed to having Tannehill throw for 400 yards, is probably Miami's best shot to win.

Offensive tackle Tyson Clabo explained his release from the Atlanta Falcons as "sudden" and "unexpected." But Clabo explained in a conference call why he feels he landed on his feet quite well by signing with the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

“When I was released and became a free agent, one of the things we wanted to find out was who had interest,” Clabo explained. “What teams do I think have use [for a right tackle] and on the move upward in the league? Miami was right there.”

Clabo, 31, is projected to start at right tackle for Miami after signing a one-year contract. Clabo started at right tackle for a majority of his career. He also played right guard in Atlanta in 2006. Miami’s in-house candidate, Jonathan Martin, is now the likely starter at left tackle.

Like many of Miami’s free-agent acquisitions, Clabo cited the potential of Dolphins second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill as one of the key reasons why he joined the team. Clabo grew with 2008 first-round quarterback Matt Ryan in Atlanta to become a perennial playoff contender and aims for similar results in Miami.

The Dolphins, my sleeper pick in 2013, look solid on paper and will try to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.

“We made some big moves in the offseason in free agency, and the draft look like it went really well,” Clabo said of the Dolphins. “With the young QB with a lot of upside, I feel like we can make some noise.”
It has been an ongoing debate in South Florida since the 2008 NFL draft.

The Miami Dolphins and former president Bill Parcells held the No. 1 overall pick and took left tackle Jake Long over quarterback Matt Ryan, who went to the Atlanta Falcons at No. 3. Miami chose a quarterback in the second round, which turned out to be Chad Henne.

Many questioned for years if Long and Henne were the way to go over Ryan, and Long's recent departure from Miami brings this debate back to the forefront. Combining Long's exit with Henne being a draft bust confirms the Dolphins made the wrong decision.

Long was an elite player in Miami during his first three years. However, his play and durability dropped significantly the past two seasons. Meanwhile, Ryan has been a franchise cornerstone in Atlanta his entire tenure and will have a long career.

Quarterback and left tackle are arguably the two most important positions on the field. But if you have to choose between the two, you always fill the bigger need at quarterback.

The Dolphins paid dearly for the Henne mistake. Former head coach Tony Sparano was fired in 2011, and Miami also had to take a quarterback in the first round in 2012 with Ryan Tannehill. None of that would have taken place had Miami selected Ryan over Long. Ryan is a franchise quarterback Miami could have built its team around. He's never had a losing season in Atlanta and already led the Falcons to four playoff appearances.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins are still trying to recover from their disastrous decisions in the 2008 draft. Long was the No. 1 overall pick and the final member of that draft class remaining on the Dolphins' roster -- and now he's gone.
VereenAP Photo/Elise AmendolaTom Brady threw for 344 yards and three scores as New England beat Houston in the divisional round.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Joe Flacco. … Matt Ryan. … Colin Kaepernick.

Tom Brady.

If you're looking for a clear-cut favorite among the NFL's final four teams, look no further than the quarterbacks. The disparity between Brady and his counterparts makes the New England Patriots the hands-down favorite to win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

Brady was once again masterful in the Patriots' 41-28 divisional playoff victory Sunday over the Houston Texans. Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and had a 115.0 passer rating.

Brady has a way of consistently making good defenses look ordinary. Houston's seventh-ranked group allowed 83 points in two games against Brady this season.

Sorry, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers, but there is only one elite quarterback left in the NFL playoffs -- and he resides in New England. No one is going to stop a focused and determined Brady from capturing his fourth Super Bowl title, which would tie an NFL record with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.

The Ravens are up first for the Patriots in the conference title game, and Brady vividly remembers the controversial loss earlier this season.

Let’s just say Brady doesn't plan on going the Peyton Manning route next week.

“I think the two best teams are in the finals," Brady said. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here, and so do we. It’s very fitting. We played them earlier in the year and they got us. We blew a pretty good lead there at the end, and we’re going to have to play our best game this week.”

Baltimore, Atlanta and San Francisco all deserve to be in the conference finals. But are Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick ready for this big stage? That is the bigger question.

Brady is one game away from his sixth Super Bowl appearance and fourth championship. Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick have zero combined Super Bowl appearances and zero combined championships. In a one-game scenario, you have to like Brady's chances. Brady’s 17 career playoff wins are nearly double the nine combined postseason wins for Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick.

Brady was winning Super Bowls when Flacco and Ryan were high school teenagers. Kaepernick was 14 when Brady won his first title in February 2002. Brady is the ultimate gatekeeper among these three green quarterbacks still trying to get over the hump and make a name for themselves. It's not going to happen on Brady's watch this year.

New England safety Steve Gregory has been on both sides of the Brady ledger. Gregory played against Brady several times as a member of the San Diego Chargers and became Brady’s teammate for the first time this season after signing as a free agent. Gregory learned quickly that it’s better to be with Brady than against him.

“His ability to get to the line, recognize defenses and get the offense in the right play is pretty amazing,” Gregory explained. “I love having him on my side now.”

The Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season after he broke his forearm for a second time, but it doesn’t matter. The Patriots proved they are adaptable. New England was 4-1 this year without Gronkowski and didn't miss a beat Sunday against Houston when Gronkowski missed more than three quarters. The high-scoring Patriots have more than enough offensive weapons at their disposal.

The only irreplaceable Patriot is Brady.

"He's our leader and we all follow him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We all respect him and he led the team today. … There's no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady."

Brady began his day at Gillette Stadium when he came out the tunnel for pregame warm-ups. He jogged to one corner of the end zone and pumped up the home crowd. Brady was intense the entire game and stayed on his teammates, even as the Patriots led by as many as 25 points in the second half.

By the time Brady carved up the Texans and went to his postgame news conference, he was subdued. Brady, 35, gave the Patriots all he had. He is playing as though there is no tomorrow.

“I’m tired, man. All the emotional energy spent,” said Brady, who is the third player in NFL history with at least 40 postseason touchdowns. “The big buildup to the week with four days of practice. You’re up and you’re down, you’re up and you’re down. I’m tired and ready to go home.”

When Brady left the news conference, he ran into Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Brady embraced Kraft by putting one arm around New England's owner, and the two chatted on the way out the stadium.

Kraft had a smile on his face during his talk with Brady. Kraft knows he has the one player who separates the Patriots from the rest of the Super Bowl field.

Brady won his first title in New Orleans versus the St. Louis Rams 11 years ago to begin his storybook career. Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick simply aren’t good enough to stop Brady from winning his fourth championship in the same place where it all started.
One of my favorite AFC East readers, Hot Sauce Steve, asked an interesting question in the blog today.
He writes: "James, here is another good topic from another article. How bad does taking Jake Long over Matt Ryan look now? We were pilloried for it. Jake is about to extend, Ryan looks like he has maxed out at zero playoff wins and they might have to find another or build a team that can carry him."
SportsNation

Four years later, did Miami make the right call by drafting LT Jake Long No. 1 overall over QB Matt Ryan?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,695)

James Walker: It's a tough question, Steve. The Miami Dolphins took Long No. 1 overall and also considered Ryan, who went third to the Atlanta Falcons. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas has an interesting piece on Ryan not fulfilling his potential in Atlanta. The case for Miami is that Long is arguably the best left tackle in football. If not, Long is in the top two or three at his position. The same cannot be said about Ryan, who is maybe a top-10 or top-12 quarterback. But Ryan certainly is not the best quarterback in the NFL. From that standpoint, Miami drafted the better prospect. However, the case against Miami is that the quarterback position is so important. Getting a top-10 quarterback makes a huge difference. The Dolphins took Chad Henne in the second round after passing over Ryan, and we saw how that worked out. Miami is still looking for a franchise quarterback (Ryan Tannehill?) four years later. Meanwhile, the Falcons have not had a losing season under Ryan and have been to the playoffs three of his four years. In contrast, Miami has had three losing seasons and been to the playoffs just once in the span, during Long's rookie year. Although Long is the better player relative to his position, I think drafting Ryan would have made a bigger impact for Miami's franchise. The Dolphins would have won more games and probably saved Tony Sparano's job by having a top-10 quarterback on the roster. Long has more than done his job at left tackle, but he cannot make that type of impact.

So that's my take. Now let's hear yours.

Feel free to cast your vote. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Brady, Revis, Sanchez make SI money list

June, 16, 2011
6/16/11
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Tom Brady probably doesn't worry about paying the mortgage(s), not when his wife's career earnings reportedly are about to hit $1 billion.

So I doubt Brady is upset about ranking ninth in all sports and third among NFL quarterbacks in Sports Illustrated's annual Fortunate 50 list of the top-earning American athletes. The rankings are based on salaries and estimated endorsement dollars.

Brady came in ninth with New England Patriots paychecks of about $20 million and sponsorships of $10 million. Brady was tied for 28th last year in Sports Illustrated's analysis.

Brady is a spokesman for various products, but he's not a prolific pitchman like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is. Manning ranked fourth at about $37 million. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan also finished ahead of Brady at $32.7 million.

Tiger Woods was first with about $2.3 million in golf earnings but an estimated $60 million in endorsements. Phil Mickelson was less than seven figures behind Woods at $61.185 million.

Miami Heat forward LeBron James was third at $44.5 million.

Here are the athletes with AFC East ties:
  • 9. Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: $30 million
  • 14. Darrelle Revis, Jets cornerback: $25.75 million
  • 38. Mark Sanchez, Jets quarterback: $17.75 million

NFL's 'The Top 100' a nice distraction

May, 16, 2011
5/16/11
10:47
AM ET
The NFL Network is filling some of the lockout downtime with a countdown of the top 100 players, revealing 10 at a time every Sunday night.

The first AFC East players were mentioned in the most recent group, Nos. 71 through 80, as voted on by their league peers.

New York Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson came in at No. 79. Jets receiver Santonio Holmes was No. 76.

Sunday night's recap show featured analysis from former New England Patriots outside linebacker Willie McGinest and reporter Jay Glazer. During the show, host Lindsay Soto mentioned 12 quarterbacks are among the top 100 and asked the experts to give their rankings.

McGinest's list:
  1. Tom Brady, Patriots
  2. Peyton Manning, Colts
  3. Drew Brees, Saints
  4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
  6. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  7. Michael Vick, Eagles
  8. Eli Manning, Giants
  9. Matt Schaub, Texans
  10. Matt Ryan, Falcons
  11. Tony Romo, Cowboys
  12. Donovan McNabb, Redskins

Glazer's list (with a tie for 12th):
  1. Tom Brady, Patriots
  2. Peyton Manning, Colts
  3. Drew Brees, Saints
  4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
  6. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  7. Michael Vick, Eagles
  8. Matt Ryan, Falcons
  9. Eli Manning, Giants
  10. Tony Romo, Cowboys
  11. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
  12. Matt Schaub, Texans, and Sam Bradford, Rams

What do you think?

Video: NFL lockout crawls onward

May, 9, 2011
5/09/11
7:43
PM ET

ESPN analyst Herm Edwards and reporter Adam Schefter discuss the latest developments with the NFL lockout, which is nearing the two-month mark. One of the key issues deals with reported against-the-rules contact between teams and undrafted rookies.

Are 32 players better than Tom Brady?

May, 9, 2011
5/09/11
11:24
AM ET
While I stepped away from the AFC East blog for a week, Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus released a series of articles in which he rated the 101 best players from last season.

The list generated murmurs about Elsayed's sanity because he listed New England Patriots quarterback and reigning (unanimous) MVP Tom Brady at No. 33.

Although grading players off television isn't the same as grading coaches' game film, and grades are only as good as the evaluators and the consistency of their systems, Pro Football Focus at least puts in the time to scrutinize every play from every game in myriad ways.

Elsayed has a basis for his opinion beyond pulling names out of the air, which many readers will assume he did.

Bart Scott, not considered the best inside linebacker on the New York Jets roster, was No. 29.

Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams was rated third behind only Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith and way ahead of superstars such as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson.

Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis isn't on the list anywhere.

The list is, to be diplomatic, interesting.

The AFC East representatives who did make the list:
  • 3. Kyle Williams, Bills defensive tackle: The only Bill on the chart.
  • 26. Jake Long, Dolphins left tackle: The highest-rated tackle -- right or left.
  • 29. Bart Scott, Jets inside linebacker: Elsayed calls David Harris "inferior" and didn't include him.
  • 30. Nick Mangold, Jets center: The highest rated at his position.
  • 31. Cameron Wake, Dolphins outside linebacker: Dolphins should offer him for Brady, straight up.
  • 33. Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: Brady was the sixth QB. Hey, at least he beat out Antonio Garay (37th).
  • 60. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end: rated fourth behind Dallas Clark, Marcedes Lewis and Antonio Gates.
  • 67. Logan Mankins, Patriots guard: Run blocking was dominant enough to overcome a half-season of work.
  • 70. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets left tackle: Ahead of Joe Thomas.
  • 71. Devin McCourty, Patriots cornerback: Ahead of Asante Samuel and Brent Grimes.
  • 73. Sione Pouha, Jets nose tackle: Combination of size and hustle mentioned as reason he's so highly rated.
  • 85. Shaun Ellis, Jets defensive end: Division-leading fifth Jets player on the list.
  • 89. Paul Soliai, Dolphins nose tackle: Elsayed said his final nine weeks graded among best in the NFL.
  • 99. Anthony Fasano, Dolphins tight end: On the list for his blocking acumen.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below this article.

I expect a lively discussion.

Video: What if QBs go 1-2 ahead of Bills?

April, 27, 2011
4/27/11
6:50
PM ET

With the NFL draft one day away, Scouts Inc. analysts Kevin Weidl and Steve Muench tap into the latest buzz.

They discuss the possibility quarterbacks come off the board with the first two picks. That would leave the Buffalo Bills with virtually no choice but to draft a defender at No. 3, but they'd get the best one in the entire draft class.

Also discussed is Florida center Mike Pouncey to the Miami Dolphins at No. 15 or to the New England Patriots at No. 17.

Brady not unanimous Power Rankings pick

April, 26, 2011
4/26/11
1:10
PM ET
ESPN.com's positional Power Rankings got around to quarterbacks Tuesday.

There were few surprises to me on the final list because my ballot was a near-Xerox of the final list. The only eyebrow-raiser for me was New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady not being the unanimous selection among the eight panelists.

Brady easily came out on top, but Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning received first-place votes from NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky. Each voted Brady second.

Brady was the undisputed pick for the Associated Press MVP Award and for All-Pro, but Sando explained Manning still deserved the edge.

"Brady has the better stats over the last couple seasons, but the Colts would undoubtedly be far worse off than the Patriots if both teams had backups under center," Sando said. "Once that was established, Brady's recent postseason struggles became a deciding factor.

"These quarterbacks have, to an extent, switched roles recently. Manning has won a championship more recently than Brady has won one. Brady has seven touchdowns, seven picks and one victory in his last four playoff games. Manning has seven touchdowns, two picks and two victories in his last four."

I don't understand the logic there. Even without taking into consideration that Brady posted historic efficiency numbers in a totally revamped system that jettisoned Randy Moss, went from a spread offense to a two-tight end set and utilized a cast of overachievers and rookies, the concept of factoring past success is lost on me.

Power Rankings are a snapshot of the moment and are expected to change regularly, not encompass years of work. But if the reason for selecting Manning ahead of Brady is recent playoff performances that go back a few years, then Ben Roethlisberger should be ahead of Manning, right? Roethlisberger has been to a pair of Super Bowls and won his second title more recently than Manning's only championship.

Manning was third on two ballots, getting in line behind Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers on NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert's list and behind Drew Brees on NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas' list.

This was my ballot:
  1. Tom Brady, Patriots
  2. Peyton Manning, Colts
  3. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  4. Drew Brees, Saints
  5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
  6. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  7. Michael Vick, Eagles
  8. Matt Ryan, Falcons
  9. Matt Schaub, Texans
  10. Joe Flacco, Ravens

Compared to the consensus, I pegged nine of the 10 players exactly and each of the first eight quarterbacks listed. The only disparity was Schaub, who tied for 12th. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning emerges as the group's choice for No. 8.

What are your thoughts?

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